T-Minus 9 Days - Elven Bread: A Source of Courage

Feast of St Dionysios the Orator

Frodo_w_Lembas_Square.jpgJ. R. R. TOLKIEN’S The Lord of the Rings is filled with examples of courage, one of the four Cardinal Virtues. Throughout their quest to destroy the one Ring, the Fellowship faces grave dangers from Orcs and other enemies. To fulfill their quest, Frodo and his companions need courage. While Tolkien mostly depicts these courageous acts without commentary, there are hints in the text of the source of this virtue.

When Frodo and the other hobbits leave the Shire, Frodo knows that he needs courage. In “Three is Company”, he asks Gildor the elf, “But where shall I find courage? . . . That is what I chiefly need.” In keeping with the admonishment not to seek counsel from Elves, Gildor replies: “Courage is found in unlikely places” (p. 83*). When captured by the Barrow-wight, Frodo and the others face great fear. But thinking about Bilbo gives Frodo strength to defy these fears, which seem “part of the very darkness that was round him.” We are also told that “There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow” (p. 137).

Since he is not the fattest nor the most timid hobbit, Frodo faces what he thought could be the end of his adventure with fortitude: it hardens him; he stiffens. While he is tempted to leave Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind, “the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily” (p. 138). With the help of Tom Bombadil, Frodo rescues his friends.


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From this point on, throughout all his adventures Frodo faces challenges and obstacles resolutely. He takes up the challenge of the Ring: “I will take the Ring” . . . though I do not know the way.” He overcomes the failure at Caradhras: “We must go on . . . if there is a way.” And he persists all the way to Mount Doom.

Friends and allies assist him along the way. While the Ring burdens him and makes him weary, he and his companions find strength from the lembas cakes they received from the elves. In “Farewell to Lorien” they are told that this waybread is “more strengthening than any food made by Man”; it is given to them “to serve you when all else fails” because “One [cake] will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith” (pp. 360-361).

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are sustained by the waybread as they search for Merry and Pippin after the Fellowship has separated. Before they encounter “The Riders of Rohan,” the trio track the Orcs and “Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lorien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran” (p. 417).

Merry and Pippin are also sustained by the lembas when they escape the Orcs (“The Uruk-Hai”): “The taste brought back to them the memory of fair faces, and laughter, and wholesome food in quiet days now far away.” As Merry says, “Lembas does put heart into you!” (pp. 447, 448).

Toward the end of their quest, as they approach “Mount Doom”, Frodo and Sam depend on the lembas for more than strength and courage: “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. . . . this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind” (p. 915).

A Eucharistic Christian can see the analogy to Holy Communion in these passages. Like the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the lembas bread increases the wholeness and holiness of the one who consumes it. It is beyond mortal bread, although it supernaturally fulfills what bread does naturally. It is best taken when fasting and Tolkien, a devout Catholic, knew and observed the Eucharistic Fast as practiced at his time (from midnight on). It increases virtue and strength, and although the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist is absent, the imagery of meal and community obtains. The lembas waybread is one of the sources of the courage displayed by elf, and dwarf, and man—and hobbit.


Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers (and at Eighth Day Books). She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.

* Quotations are from the Houghton Mifflin Company one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings (New York, 1994)

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  • commented 2015-07-19 09:05:17 -0500
    Thank you for the comment, Malcolm. When I was at the festival yesterday and professor Markos talked about the Fellowship of the Ring persevering on their journey, I thought of your comment and the waybread. Good Sunday to you!
  • commented 2015-07-15 07:27:56 -0500
    Curiously, each example of courage cited entails the sacrifice of comfort (in the modern sense of “ease,” even “self indulgence” rather than the original meaning of “strength”) to accomplish a higher, less self-centered end.

    Tolkien was besotted with words, their meaning and history. Waybread, the English for lembas, sounds very much like “viaticum,” the Latin word used for the communion, the Eucharized bread, given to those in danger of death. That word was a common term in Tolkien’s pre-Vatican II Catholicism and common enough even today. The Latin word means “provisions for a journey” from via (“way”) and cum (“with”) or, if you like, “that that goes with you on the way. “

    Viaticum comforts (strengthens) us on our last journey, a journey we are all on in this middle earth.
  • Eighth Day Institute posted about Elven Bread: A Source of Courage on Eighth Day Institute's Facebook page 2015-07-09 13:50:12 -0500
    What does Elven bread have to do with sacraments and virtue? #inklingfest #inklingreflections
  • @8thdayinstitute tweeted this page. 2015-07-09 13:50:08 -0500